Extract from The Floating Garden
Ellis hurried down Burton Street towards the curtains of dust and turned the corner where the rows of old terraces had been reduced to mounds of broken bricks. Grit stung her eyes as she navigated her way around the dunes of silt which blew in and settled, blocking pavements, filling drains, heaping across the tram tracks like middens of shell and ash. She nodded to one of the men standing knee-deep in rubble. She didn’t recognise the others. They looked like dusted ants as they scuttled over the remains of houses, pickaxes slung over their shoulders, gnawing away at the dank innards of bathrooms and the surprised mouths of fireplaces.
At the cry of ‘Watcho!’ she stopped to watch a chimney shudder towards the ground. The chimneys were always the last to go. Like me, she thought. She squinted at the bones of trees. Once, there’d been wattles here, their winter branches weighted down with drifts of gold. Now they looked as if they’d been through fire. The chimney staggered and slapped the ground. A turret of dust hovered in its wake.
She walked on, glancing towards the vast shaft cut deep into the earth where legions of men disappeared with horses and carts, re-emerging with swaying loads. All day the world shook on its axis. Surely the god of Hades would burst up from his lair to lodge a complaint.
She stared down at the harbour, at the edge of a city perched on the lip of the sea. Even over the clamour she could hear Kitty’s voice: Tell me you don’t believe in Atlantis, Ellis. Tell me you don’t. She stood at the top of the escalators leading down to the ferry terminal and turned her head away from the frantic activity of the bridge, from the changing angles of the harbour. It was like catching sight of a dead loved one’s likeness in a crowd. For those few seconds, the curve of a cheek or the flash of dark hair brought the stab of recognition followed by the chilling realisation that what once was, is no more.
Only last week she’d passed a line of abandoned houses, their broken shutters creaking in the wind. She’d known they were marked for demolition but the next day when the houses were gone, their absence opened up strange new vistas. Everything looked larger or smaller, more raw or decrepit. A line of shirts and dungarees might have flapped for sixty years in the slow-moving shadow of a corner hotel and suddenly the hotel with its yeasty smells and hosed-down tiles had disappeared. Now the whole world could see into the mossy backyard of the neighbouring house. She couldn’t help but look in too and watch a woman as she stirred at the laundry boiling in her copper, rolled up her sleeves, tucked a strand of hair behind her ears, while the husband blinked at the fierce new light burning in his shaving mirror.
She moved down the escalators and kept her eyes on the vast rooves of the work sheds built where the grand old terminus used to stand, its glass dome gleaming like a giant egg illuminating the clutch of shops beneath and the newsstand where she’d bought her Herald every day. She boarded the ferry and stared across the short stretch of water, at the head and shoulders of the Town Hall suspended in the brownish haze. She didn’t look across to The Rocks where the chaos was mirrored in symmetry.
Copyright Emma Ashmere © 2015